Statistics, especially those about the music industry, rarely give you the whole picture, but they can tell you a lot if you know where and how to look...
It's not easy putting together a statistical profile of people who spend most of their time in soundproof windowless chambers, but the Federal Department of Labour's Bureau of Labour Statistics has done a pretty decent job of it under the circumstances. They have released some interesting data recently that provides us with an economic snapshot, stilted as it may be, of the typical audio engineering worker.
The survey understandably doesn't have the kind of nuance we'd like. The broad category is 'Broadcast and sound-engineering technicians,' whose functions the Bureau describes as to "set up, operate, and maintain the electrical equipment for radio and television broadcasts, concerts, sound recordings and movies, and in office and school buildings,” in environments that include recording studios — typically dry bureaucratese, but close enough. As of 2010, people working in that category were earning a reported average of $38,970 per year, which works out to $19.17 per hour. That increased in 2011 to $26.98 per hour and $56,110 annually.
The 2011 report breaks it down more specifically. Of all the categories, those working in the motion-picture business seem to fare the best, earning over $35 per hour and over $74,000 per year. 'Sound recording' came in second, at $26.76 an hour and over $55,000 per year. Broadcast audio engineers pull in $51,550. The category titled 'Performing arts companies' presumably includes those working on live sound, who earn just under $44,000 a year.
There is a geographical breakdown and there were no surprises there, with California and New York the top two states by far for audio professional of all types, with Florida, Illinois and Texas rounding out the top five. No surprise either is the income disparity between them, with Californian and New York audio workers faring far better than their brethren in other states. California residents pull in over $74,000 and New Yorkers earn just under $66,000 a year, while an engineer in number-three-ranked Illinois gets $43,120. By the time you get to Texas you're at $36,510. The discrepancies are not surprising — California has several media hot-spots, most notably Hollywood, and New York is the centre for much of broadcasting, as well as arguably still being the country's indie music capital.
When the data becomes more granular, other locations appear. In the list of metropolitan areas with the highest employment levels in the category, after New York (hourly wage $31.91) and Los Angeles ($39.85), San Francisco appears, at $29.66 per hour, higher than Chicago's ($20.90) and possibly attributable to a Silicon Valley effect. Nashville finally arrives, though at a measly $16.32 an hour — lower than Boston, Miami or even Seattle. On the other hand, the cost of living in Nashville is far less than in any of those other cities, though any boost that gives the numbers is tempered by the fact that there is so much competition for audio jobs there. One location stands out for the fact that its hourly wage is lowest of those reported in this section. Orlando, home to massive Disney and Universal theme parks (which use tons of audio), as well as Full Sail, the largest audio academy, offers audio pros an average hourly wage of just $15.44.
In fact, looking for scarcity might be a rewarding employment strategy: an audio professional working in Richmond, Virginia earns about the same annually as one in the LA area — both pull in over $82,000 a year. The data indicates that there are 0.59 audio engineers for every thousand workers in LA, while that number drops to 0.09 in Richmond, which is perhaps better known as the capital of the Confederacy than for the regional commercial spots that get done there. Dave Matthews and the still somewhat thriving hip-hop scene in nearby Virginia Beach, however, where the Neptunes and a few colleagues have recording studios, likely help boost the numbers.
You have to do some educated parsing of the Federal data, simply because Bureau of Labour surveys were designed to reflect a much broader and more diverse workplace. What audio professionals actually do is itself increasingly difficult to pin down as specifically as the job of, say, a bank examiner or florist. Does a programmer who sync's backing tracks for a live show qualify for inclusion?
Finally, the surveys provide a huge caveat: "Estimates do not include self-employed workers.” It's reasonable to postulate that at least half this industry is self-employed. But considering that getting them (and I consider myself one of that cohort) to fill out a survey is like trying to herd cats, these government statistics are the best economic picture of the world of audio professionals we can hope for.
Now that we have this snapshot, what are the takeaways? For starters, there are a lot of people making solid, middle-class salaries in this business, and that's important: the middle class of anything — a country, a city or an industry — is what creates stability. The health of music production as a career choice isn't determined by the relative few who hit the equivalent of a lottery jackpot, but by those who manage to pay the rent, put food on the table, pay their kids' tuition and get to work on time every day. Secondly, while these numbers don't exactly fit the glitzy marketing strategies that many audio schools use to sell audio as a dream occupation, in an era of shaky finance in general, the idea that professional audio can offer a steady paycheck could be a pragmatic if unsexy selling point. Finally, this data gives us the very human pleasure of anonymously seeing how we stack up to our peers. And who doesn't like comparing themselves to the next guy?